George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Timothy Pickering, 19 May 1778

From Timothy Pickering

War Office [York, Pa.] May 19. 1778.


The inclosed copy of a letter from Thomas Smith Esqr. will inform you of the distressed condition of the frontiers of this state.1 The counties of Westmoreland & Northumberland are equally exposed with Bedford. Other accounts correspond with that of Mr Smith, & shew that a general stroke is greatly to be apprehended; and that in addition to the barbarous savages, the disaffected inhabitants are a terror to their neighbours, and that some of them mingle with the Indians in committing these horrid cruelties.

To repel the incursions, of the Indians, & reduce the disaffected to obedience, nothing, in our opinion, will be effectual but a regular force, under the direction of good officers. The inhabitants appear, many of them, to be a wild ungovernable race, little less savage than their tawny neighbours; and by similar barbarities have in fact provoked them to revenge. But the innocent are now involved in one common calamity with the guilty, and all greatly disheartened. Yet, by the countenance of a few regular troops, they would recover spirit and resolution, & be instructed in & led to pursue, the necessary measures for the defence of their settlements.

It is with regret we ask for aid in this case from the main army. But we are convinced none other will be equal to the duty. An officer of established reputation for bravery and capacity, commanding a regular corps, who punctually obey his orders, will alone be able to inspire the people with confidence, and reduce them to such a degree of order & regularity as shall be necessary for their defence. Mr Smith has named the Butlers for this service. Either of them would save the frontier: But if we are not misinformed, Lieut. Colo. William Butler has been most conversant with the Indians, & their mode of fighting.2 We submit it therefore to your Excellency whether it will not be expedient to appoint him to this command. We conceive it will be absolutely necessary that his corps should amount to two hundred & fifty men, at least, & be composed of expert rifle-men; the officers to be such as Colo. Butler shall select, with your Excellency’s approbation, as best qualified for that kind of service.

Such a deduction from the army we hope will at this time be attended with no material inconvenience; especially as it has been considerably reinforced, and draughts are daily coming in. Six hundred from the state of New-York will probably be at camp by the time this letter arrives there.

Congress have in contemplation an expedition against Detroit, or at least into the Indian country, that they may strike at the root of the mischief. But should it be resolved on immediately, the necessary preparations cannot be completed till September; and until then, such a regular force as we have mentioned, on the frontiers, appears to us indispensible.

Should these measures for the present relief of the frontiers meet with your Excellency’s concurrence, they may be put in execution immediately, agreeably to the power given by the inclosed resolve.3 But should you judge other means more proper, & equally expeditious for the relief of the frontiers, we beg your Excellency to determine upon them at once, without waiting for the opinion of the Board; as we fear a day’s delay may prove of very ill consequence.4 We have the honor to be, with great respect, your Excellency’s obedt servants

Tim. Pickering junr
By order of the Board

ALS, DLC:GW; ADfS, PHarH: Records of Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary Governments, 1775–90; copy, MHi: Pickering Papers.

1The enclosed copy of a letter from Thomas Smith to James Smith, written at Bedford County, Pa., on 11 May, reads: “Three weeks ago, I left this place in the enjoyment of Peace and security; but on my return, I find a dismal change in our situation—you heard by Mr Clymer of the attack made upon Wallis’s Fort—while the Indians were at such a distance, we thought ourselves safe, but like lightning, the instant you see them, they strike. without doing any other damage in that Country, that we heard of, they yesterday morning struck within five miles of this Town, killed a family consisting of eleven persons, amongst which number, was the babe at its mother’s breast; I was not at home time enough to go out to bury them—those who went inform me, that imagination cannot form to itself a more shocking spectacle than presented itself to them. the bones of one only remained, he being burnt in the house—the eldest Children endeavouring to save those who were younger, by flight, were found butcher’d in one another’s arms—the consequences of such a sudden and unexpected stroke you will easily imagine—the whole Country is fled with the utmost precipitation—we have endeavour’d to prevail on some of the people to make a stand in this Town. had they all made a stand we might perhaps have been able to defend ourselves till we could have procured assistance; but their fears operated so strongly upon them, that many are fled to Virginia, others to Cumberland & York and half of those who remain are so ill provided with Arms that our situation is extremely dangerous—The Indian war could not have broke out at a more unfortunate period many of our best Marksmen are in the service. we parted wth most of our Guns for the use of the Army, at a time when they were much wanted in the Camp, we deprived ourselves of the means of defence for the service of our Country and we hope that now when we are in such imminent danger of distruction, we shall not be left unsupported to fall a prey to the merceless Foe. let me my dear, Sir, intreat you to use your Influence upon this occasion—endeavour if possible to have a Rifle Regiment sent up to the Frontiers I hope it will not be thought presumption in me to say that they will be more severe here than any where else it is their own element, and if they had such a Man as either of the Butlers to command them and sent up immediately they might save a distress’d People if some step is not instantly taken for our assistance, your own County & Cumberland will become the Frontier. we are too weak to defend ourselves, or to make a stand of a continuance, our numbers are few, arms are wanting—could we not have a few Rifles sent up? let me again entreat you to exert yourself on this occasion—as the frontiers have contributed more than their share of men for the service, as many of those Men were inlisted for the express purpose of defending the frontier, (but were afterwards order’d away where their service was at that time most required) We hope that the Country from which they were taken will not be suffer’d to fall a prey. we trust the Hone Congress will prove themselves the guardians of every part of the United States a delay of assistance will be to us of equally fatal consequences as a denial of it” (DLC:GW).

Thomas Smith (1745–1809), a Scot who settled in Bedford County in 1769 and became an attorney, served in the Pennsylvania house of delegates, 1776–80, and was a delegate to the Continental Congress, 1780–82. In 1785–86 Smith was GW’s attorney in litigation relating to GW’s Millers Run tracts, and from 1794 until his death he was a judge of the Pennsylvania supreme court.

2William Butler (1745–1789), the brother of Col. Richard Butler of the 9th Pennsylvania Regiment, served as captain of the 2d Pennsylvania Regiment from January until September 1776, when he was promoted to major. Early the following year he was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment with a commission dating from September 1776. Butler frequently acted as lieutenant colonel commandant of his regiment in 1777–78, and in January 1779 his status was confirmed by a commission. He retired from the army in January 1783.

3Pickering enclosed an extract of the congressional minutes of 18 May, indicating that Smith’s letter had been read and referred to the Board of War, “who are authorized in Conjunction with General Washington to take such Measures for affording present Relief to the western Frontiers as can be adopted consistent with the present State of the main Army” (DLC:GW; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 11:507).

4See also Richard Peters to Thomas Wharton, Jr., this date (Pa. Archives description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds. Pennsylvania Archives. 9 ser., 138 vols. Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949. description ends , 1st ser., 6:526).

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